Evans, Outside the Box
I am a musician, and jazz is my primary idiom. I perform, teach, compose, and arrange; I play piano (classically trained growing up, jazz trained at the California Jazz Conservatory) and have accompanied myself on ballads here and there on gigs, but voice is my primary instrument. I say all this not simply to state the obvious, but because if you’ve been dipping into my blog entries over the past several months you might wonder what my daughters, the RIAA, appalling brats at Whole Foods, and my upbringing have to do with my profession. Shouldn’t there be some content on this musician's blog about, well, music? I make no excuses for my tongue-in-cheek entries (does anyone really want me to yammer on about retrograde and inversion compositional approaches for three paragraphs? Didn’t think so) but I’m about to get into the musical weeds for a minute. Hang in there, because this regards one of my musical idols, the great Bill Evans, so I promise it’s worth reading.
I am always thrilled to find recordings that shed new light on well-known artists: early Beatles demos (although they’ve probably all been found and monetized – er, released – by now), live bootlegs that capture a moment in musical history that would otherwise live only in audience memory, stuff like that - unexpected gems. There is a Lee Konitz double CD that has been in release for two decades – Live at the Half Note – that fits into this category, but not for the reasons you might think. Live at the Half Note has an unusual backstory: early in 1959, leading cool-school saxophonists Lee Konitz (alto) and Warne Marsh (tenor) had reunited with their mentor, pianist Lennie Tristano, for an extended gig at the Half Note in New York, but Tristano – a dedicated educator – taught on Tuesday nights and, on one of those Tuesdays, asked Bill Evans to sub. Evans decided to record his sets with the quintet that night for his own personal archive; many years later, the session reels were discovered in his archives (Evans died in 1980). The full double-CD was finally released by Verve in 1994, and it documents some of the greatest cool players collaborating with stunning results; the raw recordings were distilled into 12 tracks for release. Each song is remarkable and could be thoroughly analyzed and celebrated in its own right, but I want to point your attention to the Bobby Troup blues Baby, Baby All The Time, specifically Bill Evans’ solo.
Although it was an accident of fate that Evans happened to be a part of this particular lineup that Tuesday night in Manhattan more than fifty years ago, it is our great good fortune that he was. Konitz and Marsh inspired Evans to do some incredibly original work, most remarkably on Baby Baby All The Time, a 12-bar blues that becomes an entirely new piece in the quintet’s hands. The song starts with Konitz and Marsh laying down the melody in flawless counterpoint; Konitz plays the head clearly but not literally while Marsh circles him with strophic phrases using blues-based vocabulary, a musical sleight-of-hand that makes the song instantly intriguing. But here's the kicker: when Bill Evans launches his solo following the horn solos, it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard from the iconic pianist, almost completely lacking in what we think of today as Evans’ stylistic language. Full of original ideas that demonstrate his total command of rhythm and shape without ever resorting to familiar patterns, Evans creeps in with a few minimalist lines and percussive phrases using tasteful chromaticism, then builds motives slowly and deliberately while referring back to his original chromatic/cluster idea periodically. The solo is all subtle storytelling, never coming to an obvious peak, and employs blues vocabulary without ever falling back on licks that beg for applause; it feels more like a meditation than a performance, as if he’s giving his imagination free reign and allowing the audience to hear the ideas as they channel out of his fingers. It’s a truly magnificent solo, all the more so when considered in the context of Evans’ career continuum and how we routinely categorize his "style" today. Get it – listen to it (repeatedly). It is, without a doubt, one of the coolest, most unexpected things I’ve ever heard from one of the greatest minds in jazz.